Nine Candidates File For Upcoming Special Elections For State House, Senate

The Arkansas House chamber

Seven Republicans and two Democrats with little or no political experience have filed paperwork to run for statewide office.

Three special elections are upcoming for House and Senate seats vacated after the passing of one lawmaker, and two others getting new posts in President Donald Trump’s administration.

The week-long period for filing as a party candidate with the secretary of state’s office started at noon on Dec. 6 and closed Wednesday at the same time. In the wake of the Democratic Party’s victory in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama on Tuesday, only two candidates from the state’s minority party are running for the three seats in Arkansas Senate Districts 16 and 29, and House District 83.

Senate District 16 was formerly held by the late Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, who died on Nov. 16 after a long bout with cancer. Senate District 29 was represented by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot; and the House District 83 seat was held by State Rep. David Branscum. Williams and Branscum were appointed by President Trump this past fall to take positions with the Southern States Energy Board and U.S. Department of Agriculture, respectively.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has set schedules for all three special elections to coincide on the same dates in early 2018. The primary elections will be held on Feb. 13, followed by a runoff election on March 13, if necessary. General elections for the special races will be held on Tuesday, May 22.

The expansive Senate District 16, which includes Newton and Pope counties and parts of Boone, Carroll and Van Buren counties, will field three GOP candidates and a lone Democrat. They include Pope County residents Robert “Bob” Bailey, Breanne Davis and Luke Heffley on the Republican side and Teresa Gallegos as the Democratic Party representative.

Bailey, who filed his application with the secretary of state’s office on Dec. 12, had already publicly announced weeks ago on social media he was interested in Standridge’s seat. However, the other Republican candidates have quietly emerged in recent weeks with Davis filing for the open position on Dec. 7, and Heffley on Dec. 12.

Davis, a senior account executive with global analytics firm SAS Institute, has served on the board of education for the Russellville School District. She was also appointed this year by Gov. Hutchinson to serve on the Arkansas State Board of Athletic Training. Heffley is a special projects coordinator at Arkansas Tech University, and worked in Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office between 1997 and 2000.

Gallegos, who is vice chair of the Pope County Democrats in Russellville, submitted her application to run for Standridge’s vacated seat on Dec. 12. She serves as a board member for the Russellville Community Market and volunteers at River Valley Food 4 Kids.

In Senate District 29, three candidates have filed to run for the office that represents parts of Lonoke, Faulkner and Pulaski counties. Steven McNeely, a Jacksonville personal injury attorney, is the lone Democratic candidate to file for the seat that Williams has held since 2010.

McNeely, who filed just ahead of Wednesday’s noon deadline, will face either one of the two former Cabot School Board members in the May general election. Republican business executives James Coy and Ricky Hill are now slated to face each other in the Feb. 13 primary race. Hill is a Cabot farmer and senior level banker at publicly held Bank of the Ozarks. Coy works for an East Coast-based data analytics firm.

In the District 83 House seat vacated after Branscum announced his resignation on Nov. 17 to become the USDA’s rural development director in Arkansas, two Marshall natives — J. Donald Ragland and Timmy Reid — have emerged on the Republican ticket to represent the reconfigured district that include parts of Searcy, Newton, Pope and White counties.

According to Ragland’s Facebook bio, he is a Justice of the Peace in Searcy County and worked as a warden for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for 25 years. He also was a Witts Springs School Board member, and was appointed in 2013 to fill a vacancy as Searcy County Sheriff. Reid is a contractor and cattle farmer in Searcy County.

Despite having only two candidates in the upcoming special elections, state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Gray said he is encouraged the party had candidates who were willing to run in districts that are “reliably red.”

“Those are tough races for Democrats even when [we] had strongholds,” said Gray, who was tabbed to lead the party in March. “That is a ‘really red’ area, but we have good people who were willing to step up and run and I believe they will work hard.”

Gray, who is also holds a seat in the state House of Representatives for District 47, said he believes the state Democratic Party will gain some momentum from Tuesday night’s surprising win in Alabama by Democrat Doug Jones. He also said other key national and statehouse wins in so-called red states that lean toward Republican candidates have helped the party recruit better candidates.

“More than just momentum for victory, it is helping to change the attitude some,” Gray said. “In has been such a tough last couple of cycles, and then with the connection to [presidential candidate] Secretary Hillary Clinton here in Arkansas, everybody was just kind of defeated. So, seeing that momentum — ‘if it can be done in Alabama and Oklahoma, it can be done here.’”

Still cautious, Gray said the state Democratic Party still has a lot of work to do to see winning results, especially among skeptical women, African-Americans and other minorities. “I can’t say this momentum has translated to wins, but I can say it has translated to energy and less of me having to pull people in [to run] for office,” he said.

Longtime state GOP chairman Doyle Webb said his party also found a great field of candidates seeking the Republican nomination in each of the special elections. Today, the Republican Party holds solid majorities in both the House and Senate and has a party member serving in all seven of the constitutional offices, including Gov. Hutchinson.

“I feel confident that the Republican nominee in each district will go on to be elected in the general election on May 22,” said Webb, the longest-serving GOP chairman in the party’s Arkansas history.